Smart Review: An Evening in Mystic, CT

Mystic Pizza & the Ancient Mariner
A restaurant review by Jack Smart

Mystic Pizza

Mystic’s mystical MYSTIC PIZZA [Julia Roberts not pictured]

If, like me, you’ve never had the pleasure of seeing the early-career Julia Roberts showcase Mystic Pizza, you may feel on the outside of some cultish form of nostalgia when visiting the restaurant that inspired the film. An otherwise unremarkable pizza joint in the middle of Mystic, Connecticut, Mystic Pizza (“A slice of heaven!”) daily attracts thousands upon thousands of movie fans who happen to be hungry — rather more than the amount of hungry patrons who happen to be movie fans.

The familiar ambience of this mecca is as important to its character as the merchandise shop on the bottom floor (for a mere $26, you can own the same t-shirt the movie’s waitresses wear!). Walls are plastered, Pinterest-style, with framed pictures of Lucille Ball’s eyebrows, classic Coca-Cola ads, and of course, Roberts’ timeless smile. It’s comforting and mainstream, a pop culture obsessive’s fever dream. The staff is bubbly yet laid-back, ready to recite recommendations from the menu, which dedicates more space to describing the Hollywood backstory than what’s for dinner.

Speaking of which, what about the food? Self-referential buzz aside, does the actual pizza hold up to the hype? Happily, there is some justification for boasting of a “secret recipe,” as the geographically inspired pizzas, with their soft and oily crusts, have more than enough oomph. The Mediterranean is smothered in bright reds and faded greens, a collection of toppings that prove, if not fresh, then at least a cut above your typical veggie fare. A simple pepperoni option offers subtle layers of earthy sauce, copious meat, and gooey cheese. Most cohesive is the chicken and gorgonzola, a terrific juxtaposition of creamy and hearty which demanded I devour second, third and fourth slices.

The supporting player who stole the show at this particular meal, however, was a casual appetizer. Individually sliced fried pickles provided a crispy yet refreshing palette cleanse between pizza samplings. Served with irresistible tomato and ranch sauces, they completely upstaged anything else on the table.

Though this was all washed down with a stein of Mystic Seaport, a local blonde ale, my companions and I craved a cocktail dessert at a classier joint. Mystic Pizza makes for a fine meal, but not exactly fine dining, and as I glimpsed Julia Roberts kissing some boy on a large screen, I felt the reverence a bit overblown. This is not supposed to be a movie review after all, and doesn’t the whole operation come off as — pardon the expression — cheesy?

The Ancient Mariner was the next logical step, just down the street near the bridge over the town’s eponymous river. Greeted warmly by a gracious host, we were ushered into the unpretentious restaurant, which specializes in seafood and American cuisine. The place is rowboat-chic, featuring dozens of oars hanging from the ceiling and some kitschy surf paraphernalia. A series of nautical photographs are sliced to resemble a boat’s hull, and a charming stone fireplace is sure to warm those chilly riverside meals in the winter.

The bar glows with seductive amber light. As heavenly fried smells emanated from neighboring tables, and Joni Mitchell’s “California” lilted over the speakers, my companions and I selected cocktails from the eight or ten options available. My orange gimlet, consisting of muddled lime, slices of orange, Ketel One, and ice, had little in the way of surprises. It came together in exactly the way you expect from those uninspired ingredients, and unfortunately craved sweetness.

The coconut margarita, however, was a delight. Creamy and elegant, the effect is somehow beachy without tasting like it should be served at spring break. It’s a perfect coda to a summer evening in Mystic, be it highbrow or determinedly otherwise.


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